Kamala Harris - The Power Of A Name

Every aspect of Kamala Harris's life as Joe Biden's historic Vice-Presidential pick will now be discussed threadbare in America and elsewhere. What will probably pass unnoticed, however, is something most Indians know by default. This is the meaning of the name 'Kamala'.

Public memory is notoriously short, but it was not so long ago that two of the six women furiously battling it out for the US Democratic Presidential nomination - a full third, that is - happened to have names drawn from a classical Indian lexicon. They were Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard.

The names 'Kamala' and 'Tulsi' that Senator Harris and Congresswoman Gabbard carry are, I suggest, part of a shared bio-cultural narrative. This intriguing lineage could go far beyond the dismissive Shakespearean trope - "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet". These Indian names draw our attention to at least three things. They illustrate the vital, if often silent and subliminal, effect that cultural diversity can have on global conversations; they force us to focus on gender, race and class as critical factors in not just American but in world political articulations; and finally, they invite us to return to Michel Foucault's foundational pronouncements about the relationship between "bio-political power" and contemporary modes of governance.

To begin with naming and referring: these are recognized as basic linguistic processes, which is why leading philosophers such as Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein have dwelt at length on the importance of proper names to a 'theory of meaning'. Human societies everywhere make an extraordinary move when a child is born into a community. They give each infant a separate and individual name. This is a hugely expensive cognitive act. While it places a great burden on our memories, though, it also infinitely reveals human aspirations.


Kamala Harris, Joe Biden's running mate, is the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrant parents

Names, in short, not only organize the world for us but also render it emotionally relevant. They confer on our everyday lives a logistics of desire. To name someone is to take that first step towards loving or hating them. This is especially true if the individuals involved are one's children. For this reason, it is seldom that parents choose to name their children Ravana or Judas. It is also why Elon Musk and Claire Grimes' decision to call their son by the unknown, futuristic name 'X Æ A-XII' is most unusual; but even in the Musk case, it was reported that "each letter signified something close to hearts of the parents."  And it is here that we come, so to speak, to the heart of the matter. 

After Kamala Harris was named Joe Biden's putative running mate, her sister Maya excitedly tweeted:  "You can't know who Kamala Harris is without knowing who our mother was. Missing her terribly, but know that she and the ancestors are smiling today."

Kamala Harris is the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrant parents brought up in the cultural sphere of a predominantly white, 'western' polity. She identifies as black and is a Baptist Christian by religion. Thus, her ancestry was amazingly hybrid. Yet her mother insisted on giving her daughters Indian names. In this basic sense, these names constitute that talisman against forgetfulness that every immigrant must try and forge. So, if Senator Harris has repeatedly said that her "three-in-the-morning" agenda was inspired by the image of her mother sitting up late at night at a Berkeley kitchen table trying to balance the books, surely the specific and traditional name that her mother chose to give her must matter too.

As Indians know well but the world at large may not, "Kamala" means "lotus", a flower rooted not on solid land but rising exquisitely out of mud and mire. A lotus, that is, could be said to symbolize the moral capacity of individuals to transcend the world of 'dirty politics' and swampy motives. No surprise then, that 'Kamala' is such an extremely popular name, for in the fractal format of the lotus lie the possibilities of embattled hope. Ancient texts such as the Buddhist 'Lotus Sutra' rely on the imagery of the lotus, as do dominant political parties such as the BJP in present-day India.


The names "Kamala" and "Tulsi" that Senator Harris and Congresswoman Gabbard carry are part of a shared bio-cultural narrative

The name "Kamala" is a wondrous shape-shifter that has always had several synonyms in Sanskrit (Ambuja, Padma, Sarojini etc.), each a well-known female name. Interestingly, Kamala Harris, in her very first speech as Vice-Presidential candidate on Wednesday, has herself played on her name, calling her favorite role that of 'Momola'! Also worthy of note is the fact that 'Kamala' in the Indian tradition is not the name of a goddess, so ubiquitous in ancient mythology, but a 'secular' image drawn directly from nature, as is 'Tulsi', the name given to Gabbard by her Hindu mother.

So, am I arguing that Congresswoman Gabbard and Senator Harris somehow embody the natural qualities that their names represent? No, certainly not. My suggestion, rather, is that embedded in their mothers' choices of these 'alien' names are whole buried Foucauldian "archaeologies of knowledge" from other cultures. True, such an extended discussion of their names may seem a waste of time. It is easy to say: who cares? However, we should remember that from Plato's 5th century BCE Cratylus onwards, names have been considered revelatory. 'Kamala' (or 'Tulsi'), invested with meaning in the US context, could in this respect open up new pathways to discussions on cultural politics and even on how to govern: of when, let's say, to pit a nuanced history of 'black' oppression against an encompassing narrative of 'white' American identity, and so forth.

This brings me to my last brief observation concerning Foucault's notions of "bio-power" and "governmentality". In his own words in the History of Sexuality, this sort of power "exerts a positive influence on life... subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations". It is hard to deny that the world is mesmerized today by the acrimonious US debates on the "soul of America" in Trumpian times. This is because they seem to flag a universal question that concerns people everywhere, not least us in India - how is a country, any country, sundered by social divisions and ill-served by "broken" regulatory systems, to be governed in a "positive" fashion?  

We are often told that, in politics, "negatives" can become "positives" in an instant. This appears precisely what has now happened in the case of the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris alliance. All is forgiven but we must not forget that it was only last year Senator Harris had sharply and emotionally questioned former Vice-President Biden on his "racist" record on busing. At the time, the wounded histories of race and gender within the same Democratic party were on vivid display for the world to witness. Today, those wounds seem to have miraculously healed, but their traces remain, for example, in the harsh inferences that Americans have sometimes drawn from 'foreign' names such as 'Barack Obama', falsely believing that merely having such a name can indicate untrustworthiness. That is why making globally available our local cultural knowledge of names such as 'Kamala' may not be entirely irrelevant.

Names can reveal, in significant ways, the "bio-politics" of cultural erasure and the struggle for political inclusion by those at the margins. If the millennia old tracks left by 'the lotus' tell us anything, it is that hardy immigrants travelling far from their original homes in Africa and Asia to new worlds in countries like America can ultimately populate, thrive and triumph in these environments. Thus, in the history of human naming, survives an irrepressible continuum of human hope or, as the 13th century mystic Jalal-ad-din-Rumi once wisely put it, "the wound is where the light enters".

Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a linguist. She teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and is one of India's best-known contemporary poets.

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